Moroccan #MeToo helps women break their silence against sexual harassment and rape
Moroccan women are leading their own #MeToo movement, providing a platform to sexual harassment and rape victims to tell their personal stories.
The Masaktach (I will not be silent) collective launched a call for victim testimonies on February 9: "Denounce these aggressors who act with impunity, comforted by your silence."
The movement's testimonials are posted publicly on their Facebook and Twitter pages, using victims' initials to preserve their anonymity. If several of them denounce the same assailant, upon their consent, the group connects them.
Moroccan rape victims have responded to the call by anonymously messaging the collective with their experiences.
Masaktach's Facebook page has gathered more than two dozen stories so far, such as the following:
"I was married to a Moroccan man for 19 years. During these 19 years, I suffered marital rape. It took me a long time to realise it. He would wake me up any time of the night to do what he wanted. If I said I didn't want to, he would tell me I was a bad wife and that God was watching and noting everything."
"I was nine, and used to stay at my aunt's house during summer holidays. That summer, my cousin touched me for the first time and told me we were just playing. It was only years later when I understood what it was. I've never told anybody, you are the first ones to know. She's a girl, my cousin, from my own family, who destroyed my whole life. Until today, I'm living through the consequences of what I endured back then."
"My name is K.M. I have been raped twice in my life; the first time at six-years-old, the second time at 33. The first time violated my innocence, the second violated my confidence in humans. They both bruised my body, wounded my soul, and disturbed my mind."
"Today I'm 26. I've been sexually harassed several times, so many times that I don't even remember. I suffered sexual touchings as a little girl, and I was raped three times."
Stephanie Willman, a founding partner of Mobilising for Rights Associates (MRA), an organisation that fights for women's equality, welcomed the new platform. She noted that neither the society nor the state or any public services in Morocco has an "accurate idea" of the nature and scope of the problem, and how women are affected by it because women would not come forward and speak up.
"It's an extremely important first step in giving decision-makers and everyone a picture of what the reality of rape and sexual assault in Morocco is," the women's rights activist emphasised, alluding to the government, the justice system, law enforcement officers and healthcare workers.
"That will help start developing appropriate laws, policies, procedures and services, which are right now not responsive [to sexual harassment and abuse]," she continued.
Masaktach is a community of men and women who denounce violence and abuse against women and the culture of rape in Morocco. It was founded in September 2018 following two prominent Moroccan cases of rape: Khadija and Saad Lamjarred.
The story of Khadija Okkarou, kidnapped and gang-raped for two months by 12 adults and one minor, made headlines in Morocco after the 17-year-old spoke about her assault in an interview with a local TV station.
Read more here: Fighting the system: The teenage Moroccan rape victim who refused to stay silent
In that first public appearance, she urged other women to "never remain silent" about sexual abuse and harassment.
The other rape case involved Saad Lamjarred, a Moroccan pop star who faced his third allegation of sexual assault in August 2018. One of his victims spoke out in 2017 by posting a video in which she detailed the incident after her identity was leaked online.
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Well before the two-year-old collective came into existence, another civil society group, the Moroccan Association for Combating Violence Against Women (AMVEF), broke the taboo around sexual abuse through its listening centre that has operated for 25 years.
"We turned sexual violence into a societal topic. We laid the path for women victims to denounce the abuses suffered, and people started talking about it," Fatima Zohra-Chaoui, head of the AMVEF, said.
She thinks Masaktach is a positive "accompanying" initiative in that for those women who denounce their aggressors through the movement AMVEF can later intervene, and handle their cases providing legal and psychological assistance to the victims.
Sexual assault and rape remain a major problem in Morocco, with 52 percent of Moroccan women affected, according to government figures. Despite that, only three percent of victims report the violence.
Until today, judicial officials, Moroccan media outlets, and social media users focus on what victims of harassment were wearing or doing, rather than punishing the aggressor.
The MRA co-founder discussed the main obstacles impeding women from formally testifying.
One recurring problem is that, under Moroccan law, sex relations outside of marriage are criminalised. Because the penal code defines rape as a sexual act "against her will", if the complainant does not show injuries or proof that she fought back, that means she admitted to sex outside of marriage (which is illegal). So not only the rapist would not be investigated or prosecuted, but the victim would be prosecuted instead.
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Other issues have to do with how victims are received and their cases treated. In the absence of procedures and services in place to enable the relevant actors to deal with sexual abuse cases, Moroccan women are largely reluctant to put faith in the country's justice system so they refrain from filing claims.
"The trauma, shame, humiliation and all challenges of going through the process are just not worth it for them since perpetrators end up not being convicted, so they won't get any justice," Willman argued.
Societal and family pressures that prevent victims from reporting are likewise related to the legal response. The family knows that if the woman comes forward to denounce abuse, she will be at risk of being imprisoned and it will make a public scandal.
The social and cultural environment also impacts the victim's resistance to make a formal complaint due to widespread victim-blaming.
"The fault always falls on the woman's back if she's harassed or raped. Then she's ill-treated when accessing public services," Chaoui pointed out.
"So women prefer enduring the pain than reporting the abuse."
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Although Morocco's government passed Law 103-13 criminalising harassment and violence against women in 2018, women's organisations deem the legislation inadequate in ensuring the protection of assault victims.
It does not criminalise martial rape, or protect women engaging in sexual intercourse outside of marriage. Instead, it penalises sex outside of marriage, deterring victims from reporting as they risk being convicted themselves. The law only protects victims from their aggressors if the victim files a criminal claim against them.
Under the 2018 law, no services like medical care, therapy and shelters are provided, and there is no guidance for police, prosecutors, and doctors to deal with the sensitive issue of sexual harassment and assault.
While helping assault and rape victims to break their silence, the Masaktach movement hopes to facilitate the judiciary work needed to fight violence against women, and support affected women facing difficulties in a masculine, patriarchal, and often misogynist society.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.
Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec